The Indian publishing industry today is driven by women. SWATI DAFTUAR on the making of this silent revolution.

Over the last 10 years, the face of publishing has been changing, and what was a bit of a boys' club a few decades back is no longer so. With names like Chiki Sarkar, V.K. Karthika, Sandhya Rao and Arpita Das, and that's just skimming the surface, we know that the publishing industry is no longer exclusively a man's turf.

Today, more women occupy important, decision-making positions in the Indian publishing industry, and many have broken off from larger, multinational publishing houses to start their own imprints. With the multinationals too, a large number of young, spirited women are at the editorial helm. Over the past 10 years, at least in the world of publishing, women have surely and silently begun to outnumber men. But hasn't there always been a greater ratio of women in the editorial teams of publishing houses? And if so, what has changed?

Women-centred

“In publishing, I think there have always been more women than men,” says Milee Ashwarya, Editorial Director, Random House. “That's not to say that there aren't bright men in the industry. But it's like if you saw a literature class in Delhi University, you'll see a lot more women there than men. This is slowly being reflected in the leadership all over publishing houses in the country. At Random House, we want a healthy mix of both genders, and we don't make a conscious decision to hire only women. But currently, the industry is definitely dominated by young, bright and creative women,” she adds.

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor at Tulika Publishers, feels that women are more efficient, more convinced about what they do “When we publish books they are not like other commercial products. Its effects are long lasting, and the qualitative effect counts more than the quantitative. Maybe now women see this as a viable option.”

“Publishing has always been one of the few industries where there are countless women in the top positions and in the West, this has happened from the 1970s,” says Chiki Sarkar, who's just stepped into her thirties and has already been appointed Publisher at Penguin India, the largest English language trade publisher in the subcontinent. “I worked for Alexandra Pringle, who was the Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury and the head of publicity, marketing and exports in that company were all women.” Urvashi Butalia, Founder of Zubaan, though, feels that there has been a definite change from before. “When I began you could count the number of women more or less on the fingers of two hands. I don't mean only the secretarial or admin levels; that was never a problem, but much more at the editorial, production, marketing and sales levels.”

V.K. Karthika has seen a rapid rise to the top in the publishing industry, leaving Penguin in 2006 to join HarperCollins as Publisher and Chief Editor. “There are so many women in publishing and so many women writers; I'd say that publishing is now a very gender-fair industry. I always had a male boss, but that was no problem whatsoever. You are left to do your own thing, your own work. And your rise to the top depends on that. Writers don't come to you because of your gender. They come to you because of the work you do.”

While the workplace within a publishing house might have become more ‘feminised', some women within publishing still feel the existence of a glass ceiling.

Arpita Das, co-founder of Yoda Press, feels that there is a definite glass ceiling within huge multinational publishing firms, one of the things that prompted her to break away and start her own imprint. “At the middle management level, I saw that things were at par, but 9 out of 10 times, it was the men who exercised control at the senior management level. And more often than not, they'd be from the sales and marketing division,” says Das. She further elaborates that while this categorisation may be a conscious or subconscious one, women are inevitably considered better at the editorial aspect of the industry, and very few make it into the marketing and sales departments, “which is where the CEOs are picked from.”

Butalia, too, echoes the same thoughts. It's not that women are better editorially and not so good financially — after all, women are running businesses everywhere and doing very well. “I think women make excellent editors, but that does not mean they do not make good CEOs, they do. But they hardly ever make it to those positions,” she says. “I think that while there are of course less women in Sales, that is also because of the kind of people who join the industry and depends completely on what they came looking for. The creative side of publishing appeals to me, and I didn't join the industry to become a CEO,” admits V.K. Karthika.

Ritu Menon, founder of Women Unlimited, feels that there have been women in very senior editorial positions for at least 20-30 years — in Orient Longman (now Orient Blackswan); Oxford University Press; Vikas; Roli Books; Niyogi; Tranquebar etc. “We tend to think that this is something new because Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House and Picador have high-profile women as Chief Editors, but in fact this is an old trend.”

Skewed representation

There are, of course, more women than ever on the editorial side, but could that also be because publishing remains, especially at the entry level, a traditionally low-paying industry? The high number of women in editorials is not reflected elsewhere in the industry. Not as many women can be found in the marketing departments, and fewer in sales. “Sales is a physically taxing job, and requires lugging books and travelling to distributors. And women in sales might find themselves taken not as seriously as men. That is not to say they wouldn't be able to do the job as well. But it's how they've been perceived for ages,” says Mini Krishnan of OUP. Krishnan herself has been in publishing for over two decades and is currently editing a programme of literary translations for OUP. For Krishnan her work remains the only satisfaction she seeks. “I was never looking to move up the ladder. I love what I do, sourcing works of authors and working with translations. I won't deny that a gender bias exists, but for me, my work has found recognition, and I concentrate on making sure my authors get their recognition too,” she says.

Mita Kapur, who founded Siyahi, the literary agency, has similar thoughts. “I don't want to look at this negatively. When I started Siyahi, I was so busy and swamped with work I never actually had a chance to examine the difficulties I was facing in light of being a woman. I never looked at myself like a victim. I just pushed ahead; putting my best foot forward and convincing people about the worth of my work till I stopped being just a woman and became a person instead. You can't escape the gender bias, of course, it's everywhere. People are indulgent, patronising, they don't take you seriously, but if you keep doing your work, keep pushing, they cave in, and accept you for who you are. I faced all this, but I've learned to overcome it. Your work has to speak for you, not your gender.”

Striking out

Perhaps the biggest change that has hit the publishing industry is the advent of a large number of women-run independent publishing houses in India. According to Menon, while talking about the glass ceiling, it is necessary to make a distinction between women who are employed by publishing houses, and women who own or run them. “In the first case there may well be a glass ceiling which they find difficult to get past, but this is the case worldwide; in the second, there's no question of a glass ceiling or of a separation of editorial and finance — they are responsible for all aspects of the business and have to ensure its success and survival,” She says.

Before, women rarely got to make key decisions, let alone head their own publishing houses. They had less visibility and the levers of power were controlled by men. Today, the dynamics have shifted, and by running their own publishing houses, women have taken their position at the fore front of the business.

In 1984, Urvashi Butalia left Oxford University Press and co founded Kali for Women with Ritu Menon. In 2003, she formed her own strongly feminist publishing house, Zubaan. “It was my involvement in the women's movement that made me realise how lacking publishing was in bringing to light the writings of women, and how much needed to be done. It was also the discrimination I faced, subtle, but nonethelss strong, that made me realize that had I stayed within mainstream publishing, there would have been no real career for me, and I would have more or less stayed where I was, with perhaps regular increases in salary, so that pushed me into taking the decision to leave and set up on my own,” says Butalia. She adds that of course, the content of what Zubaan publishes has everything to do with her being a woman.

Like Butalia, many new, independent publishers are taking risks and experimenting, commissioning books in a spectrum of new areas. Following suit, many larger publishing houses with women as editorial heads are also changing the face of mass market publishing, with wider range of subjects and genres.

For women like Menon and Butalia, the push to leave mainstream publishing came from the urge and inclination to produce different books, in their case, feminist ones. Arpita Das, who left OUP to set up Yoda Press in 2005, has also given her publishing house a distinctive character, producing books on subjects like homoeroticism and transgender biographies. The Sexuality Series by Yoda Press has made a big impact on the larger publishing houses, opening the market and increasing demand for similar books. Indu Chandrashekhar, who had worked in Macmillan, founded Tulika in 1995.

The advent of independent women publishers has definitely made a visible difference to the overall publishing scene. This, coupled with the growing number of women rising to the top in larger publishing houses has altered things, and what was seen as a gentleman's game 20 years ago has fast become a prospective and bright career path for women.

Independent publishing houses run by women

Stree/Samya (Calcutta)

Tulika Children's (Chennai)

Tara Books (Chennai)

Yoda Press (Delhi)

Women Unlimited (Delhi)

Zubaan (Delhi)

Katha (Delhi)

Tulika Books (Delhi)

Other India Press (Goa)

Gyaan (Delhi)

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012